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The troubles and triumphs of the Phantoms penalty kill

What lead to a Lehigh Valley record for power play goals against? And how did they turn things around so quickly?

Casey Liberatore - SB Nation ©

After a dreadful Friday night where the Lehigh Valley Phantoms allowed five power play goals, they bounced back in a huge way against the Springfield Thunderbirds by successfully killing off all eight of their penalties. So, having played the same team on back-to-back nights, how were they able to have such a quick turn around? A change to their play in the neutral zone, cleaner zone exits, and strong goaltending are all to blame.

Game one neutral zone play

For the majority of Friday's game, they were primarily in the 3-1 trap, although not really by choice. So what the 3-1 trap does is force the puck carrier to attempt a controlled entry. The way you set this up would be to have F1, F2, and D1 hold the blue line while D2 stands around the middle of the defensive zone. We’ve seen them use this as an actual strategy before, but in this instance it seemed to be more forced by the Thunderbirds.

An example of the team using the 3-1 trap during last season

More on that in a moment, but for now let’s focus on the formation that they were trying to use; the passive 1-2-1. The two are very similar, with the lone difference being that F1 would stand in front of the blue line rather than stand on it.

The Phantoms were able to deploy the 1-2-1 in five of the Thunderbirds’ fifteen entry attempts, forcing one dump-in and allowing four controlled entries. The first two controlled entries allowed were clean, and the second led to Patrick Bajkov’s goal just seconds later. However, on the very next power play something interesting began to happen. At first what looked like a system change actually turned out to be a pick play.

The strategy was clear. Have the original puck carrier (PP 1) drop the puck to the trailer and have them eliminate F1 by setting a pick. While power play skaters 2 and 3 sit at opposite sides of the blue line giving the new puck carrier (PP 4) pass options, and the fifth skater can do a plethora of things. He can mirror the carrier moving up the ice, acting as yet another passing option, or simply plant his feet around the blue line as a distraction. The pick play essentially gives the carrier at least four different ways to enter the zone with control.

This is how the Thunderbirds were able to force the Phantoms into the 3-1, and at times it might as well have been called the 0-2-1 with how wide open the middle of the ice became.

The same side press made a rare appearance when Taylor Leier and German Rubtsov went after the puck carrier in the first period, successfully stripping them of the puck and sending it down the length of the ice. That was the only time that the Thunderbirds didn’t gain access into the Phantoms’ zone that night.

10/12/18 PK Entry Defense

Strategy Controlled entries against Dump-ins against Dump-ins retrieved Entries denied Controlled entry against % Breakup %
Strategy Controlled entries against Dump-ins against Dump-ins retrieved Entries denied Controlled entry against % Breakup %
3-1 trap 5 2 1 0 71.43% 0.00%
1-2-1 retreating 4 1 0 0 80.00% 0.00%
Same side press 0 0 0 1 N/A 100.00%
Other 2 0 0 0 100.00% 0.00%
The two entry attempts classified as “other” were two instances where there were less than four Phantoms defending the blue line.

Not to make excuses for them, they had to be better, but I can’t image that they planned on getting interfered with on just about every shift. There should have been calls made.

Game one breakouts

This was the team’s biggest problem. As a whole the team failed to exit the zone and turned the puck over on just over 35% of their exit attempts. Six out of seventeen exit attempts were fails to be exact. For the most part these were unforced errors made by players shooting the puck up the boards without control. On multiple occasions there was an opportunity to make a pass to get a better chance at a successful clear with control or without. Instead, the go-to play seemed to be a slap shot up the boards.

10/12/18 Exits

Exits Controlled exits Uncontrolled exits Fails/Turnovers Success %
Exits Controlled exits Uncontrolled exits Fails/Turnovers Success %
Myers 0 3 2 60.00%
de Haas 0 3 1 75.00%
Goulbourne 0 2 0 100.00%
McDonald 0 0 1 0.00%
Leier 1 0 0 100.00%
Bardreau 1 0 0 100.00%
Samuelsson 0 1 2 33.33%

Their struggle to get the puck out of the zone directly led to one of the five goals that they allowed. Phil Varone won the faceoff to James de Haas who then immediately made an attempt to clear the puck off up the boards. It was knocked down by Henrik Borgstrom who was then able to connect with Anthony Greco for the goal. It was just eight seconds after a faceoff win for the Phantoms.

Allowing the Thunderbirds into the zone on all but one of their entry attempts, and only being able to exit the zone 64.71% of the time led to a ton of shots against. In fact they wound up allowing 203.89 CA/60, and it’s not as if these were low quality chances. Fifty-nine percent of their shot attempts against qualified as scoring chances. Following the game, Phantoms’ head coach Scott Gordon was asked about specific aspects of the penalty kill, including the goaltending, and here’s what he had to say about them:

“And then, your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer, you’re gonna give up shots. We give up shots on the power play and the goalies save them. So that’s something that goes with the territory, and you know, your goaltender’s gonna have nights where it just isn’t going for them, and that’s not to say that they didn’t make any saves, it’s not saying that it’s one hundred percent their fault, but everything has to work. So it’s not one person that’s at fault, it’s the whole team.”

He’s right on the money. The goalies weren’t why the penalty kill failed, but they were certainly a contributing factor.

Game two neutral zone play

The pick play worked so well the night before, one would assume that they’d go right back to it - and you’d be right. However, on their first power play of the night, setting a pick burned them. Just 51 seconds into the man advantage Matt Mangene was given a minor penalty for interference for setting the pick.

It was the right call, but it was a call that was only made once. So, after realizing that they weren’t going to be penalized every time they did it, it was up to the Phantoms to adjust and find a way to stop it themselves. Fast forward just one period later and they had done just that.

No longer did F1 allow himself to be pushed back to the blue line and instead would hold firm in their position on the ice by leaning into the contact. This led the the 1-2-1 denying four of ten controlled entry attempts, and forcing four dump-ins. The middle forward, specifically Taylor Leier and Cole Bardreau, were most responsible for the breakups. While this small change was impactful, it wasn’t the only thing new that lead to the penalty kill’s newly found effectiveness through the neutral zone.

Although the 1-2-1 was still the most common, the 1-3 made an appearance on five entries. It certainly threw a curve-ball at the Thunderbirds, as they could no longer skate through the middle of the ice to gain an easy entry, and it showed in the data.

10/13/18 Entry Defense

Strategy Poss. entries against Dump-ins against Dump-ins retrieved Entries denied Poss. entry % Breakup %
Strategy Poss. entries against Dump-ins against Dump-ins retrieved Entries denied Poss. entry % Breakup %
3-1 trap 1 1 1 0 50.00% 0.00%
passive 1-3 2 2 1 1 50.00% 20.00%
1-2-1 retreating 6 4 0 4 60.00% 28.57%
Same side press 1 0 0 0 100.00% 0.00%
Other 3 0 0 0 100.00% 0.00%

Just showing something different might have been another contributing factor to the team’s usual setup having as much success as they did that night.

Game two zone exits

No longer were the Phantoms blindly throwing the puck up the boards as soon as they had possession and instead found an open lane for either a pass or a clear. Only one player turned the puck over in the defensive zone Saturday, that being Philip Samuelsson, and the team was successful on nineteen of twenty-one exits. Leading the way was Leier and James de Haas with four a piece.

One that stood out in particular came just thirty seconds into the 3rd period when Leier was able to intercept a pass and send it down the length of the ice. What was so special about this exit in particular is that the Phantoms failed to clear the zone just ten seconds earlier and the ensuing chance led to Anthony Stolarz losing his stick. The game was tied at two, the team had just failed to clear the zone, and the goaltender was without a stick. It was a recipe for disaster and Leier was able to save the shift, and maybe the game.

There’s no better way to see the full impact of stronger neutral zone play and cleaner exits than in the shots themselves. The Phantoms cut down their CA/60 from the night before by over half, dropping from 203.89 to 88.11 per 60. The quantity of shots that they allowed wasn’t the only thing that improved, they also did slightly better at denying scoring chances.

4v5 Penalty Kill CA/60

Shots against 10/12/18 10/13/18 Difference
Shots against 10/12/18 10/13/18 Difference
Low danger 82.83 37.76 -45.07
Medium danger 70.09 25.17 -44.92
High danger 50.97 25.17 -25.80
Total 203.89 88.11 -115.78

It goes without saying that the team cannot afford more to have another performance on the penalty kill like they had last Friday, and considering they made Lehigh Valley history that night, it’s unlikely to happen again. However, if it does we know they have the ability to quickly adapt to new challenges and correct the problem.

The Phantoms begin their 3-in-3 weekend tonight against the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton Penguins. The puck drops at 7:05 PM.